I can’t sit here in New Orleans and not be nostalgic for my time spent in college.
I graduated with my degree from UCLA World Arts and Cultures, after taking on a course load that was … let’s call it non-traditional. Non-traditional in the sense that it came from the tradition of everything is a learning opportunity. There were no lines-to-not-cross, and all modalities of learning were fair game: from the Theatre of the Oppressed to Ballet Folklorico, from Haitian Vodou to Koranic calligraphy.
“So… what are you going to do with that???”
That’s the refrain we often hear when pursuing an education off the beaten path. It seems like an innocuous question, one we often wonder to ourselves. But it plagues the student with the perceived need for an answer to life’s greatest mystery. We learn because we love to learn, for the act of learning, and not to force our will upon the lesson. We never know where or how our education will take us, and the things we learned and forgot years ago live within our DNA beyond the utilitarianism of a skill set.
That’s what New Orleans is teaching me. As a Freshman, I took an Intro to Folklore class and was “forced” to watch All on a Mardi Gras Day, a film about the Black Indians of Louisiana. Didn’t seem relevant to much, but watching movies in class is never a bad thing. Later, I had a chance to take a class with Donald Cosentino, whose expertise is on Haitian Vodou, Santeria and Candomblé (check out this syllabus!). Needless to say, it was an incredible class, filled with spirits and santos, a window into a world that was far away and yet living in the botanicas on our neighboring streets.
Yesterday, I went into a Voodoo shop and finally had a chance to visit some of these old friends that I had learned about years ago. I see and respect the power that these spirits have in many people’s lives. They are a representation of Trickster or Love or Anger. It is very powerful medicine and shares commonality with a number of ancient and new age modalities of connection. Walk into a voodoo botanica and you will find nag champa, intention candles, crystals, beads, tinctures and all the other usual fixtures. But you will also find the embodiment of the spirits of the Lwa, whose unique characteristics allow a Mambo to communicate with the spiritual world with great precision.
Today, I’m sitting at a Voodoo-y coffee shop with a porch view of the fabulous above-the-ground tombs that New Orleans is so famous for. I’m going back through my coursework and I’m just amazed at the stuff I was learning. I had forgotten the impact of these conversations. They were so academic at the time. Cosentino reciting the names and characteristics of Gede or Damballah, my creation of a digital alter for the latter spirit as a final project. Just going about my academic career in the path of the dark and light as a naive little college kid.
As Halloween approaches, one shop will have Mama Lola herself speak. I could actually go see, in person, a woman I had read about years ago as required reading, who has come up twice with my brother-in-law as an example of a spiritual networker.
It’s incredible the synchronicities that are happening around our self-education.
You have an experience for no particular reason, only to find years later that there was a purpose. Do you believe in coincidence? You can choose to believe that your existence is completely random and a simple aberration in statistical probability. Or you could accept the challenge to direct your own film, cast a wide variety of characters, and let the screenplay write itself through your interactions. You might be surprised by who comes to visit you. Set up the joke but don’t write the punchline.